Imam Warith Deen Mohammed leads the single largest group of Muslims in America: the 1.5 million largely African American members of the Muslim American Society, based in Chicago. Elected in 1975 to succeed his father, Elijah Mohammed, the 65-year-old imam forged a lasting mark on American Islam by moving his followers away from the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam, now headed by Louis Farrakhan, to the orthodox traditions of the faith.
Humorous, direct and soft-spoken, Mohammed spoke to The Times this week during a visit to the Bilal Islamic Center.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing Muslim America today?
A: Still the biggest challenge facing us, I think, is the need to be rightly identified for what is truly Islam and what is truly Muslim life. Most of us leaders tend to blame the media for the way we're imaged . . . but I know that the media get their information from the people and we have a responsibility to see that what you get is correct.
Q: Are you talking about the image as terrorists?
A: Not only as terrorists. As fanatics, as antichrists . . . as people who force their religion on others. All of these things are far from being true, according to the teachings of our holy book and the life example of our prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Q: What about challenges for global Islam?
A: I think we need more moral courage. The Islamic world, those persons responsible for Islamic nations and governments, are not doing enough, in my opinion, to put pressure on bad leaders in the Islamic world and to do what Muhammad did: liberate the people who are denied freedom of expression, who are denied the right to practice their religion openly and freely.
Q: Do you believe that there should be more [financial] support of local Muslims [by Muslim leaders]?
A: Yes I do. If I had great wealth like many individuals have in the Islamic world . . . I would be looking for opportunities to invest in better conditions for missions all over the world. And I have to acknowledge at this point that . . . the king of Saudi Arabia has been doing that. And some other countries are very charitable, but the noncitizens are not treated like their citizens.
Q: But when nations like Saudi Arabia give out contributions, do they also try to control the agenda?
A: In Saudi Arabia it's the Wahabi school of thought . . . and they say, "We're gonna give you our money, then we want you to . . . prefer our school of thought." That's in there whether they say it or not. So there is a problem receiving gifts that seem to have no attachment, no strings attached.
Q: Do you receive that kind of money?
A: Well, I don't receive any money now, but I have received some and I lost it . . . because I suspected some strings were attached. I said I can't accept this kind of relationship. They were choosing my friends for me, too. The enemy of the friends who were giving me money was supposed to be my enemy, too.
Q: Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is reportedly in poor health. How do you assess his impact on Islam?
A: Not Farrakhan himself, but the Nation of Islam that Farrakhan has represented, has had a very negative effect on the image of Islam in America and in the world, I think. Especially in Africa. The negative effect is the desire to be superior. A reaction to white supremacy. You know there's a kind of black supremacy promoted by the teachings of the Nation of Islam. And it's dangerous because if the idea catches on to many disgruntled people in Africa, in the black communities of the world, it can find enough dissatisfied, discontented souls to become another threat like white supremacy became. It is a real threat.
There are a lot of positives. Farrakhan still represents the message of the Nation of Islam to the poor, irresponsible black men . . . urging them to clean up themselves, to stay away from drugs, stay away from gambling and destructive things, and to accept responsibility for their families, to earn an honest income. All that's very good.
Q: Islam is said to be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world today. Why do you think it's growing?
A: Material progress, as Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and other of our visionaries have told us, has gone way ahead of spiritual progress in the Western world. And the souls are crying for spiritual peace and Islam is a new idea, so the shoppers are looking at Islam.
Q: Los Angeles Pastor Frederick K.C. Price has riled some Muslims with lectures they say distort Islam. What are your views on the controversy?
A: I'm greatly disappointed. I spent six years of my life in California and I used to watch Rev. Price and I liked him. I used to watch him, how he would come and walk among the converts in their seats, that he talked to them individually. The man that I admired I'm now very ashamed of, that he would seek advantages and seek to gain at the expense of really distorting the truth.